When I am in a photography funk, the fastest way for me to become inspired again is to discover a new film camera.
Last year for Mother’s Day, I bought myself an Olympus Pen F, a 35mm half-frame film camera, to play with. It has been one of the most fun and creative challenges I’ve ever had with a camera. I do not claim to be an expert with this camera, but I have learned a lot in the last nine months and continue to learn more every time I take it out.
What is a Half-Frame Camera?
The Olympus Pen F is a 35mm half-frame camera system. A half-frame camera, also known as a split-frame, is defined as a 35mm camera that makes images that are 24x18mm instead of the “full frame” 24x36mm.
It takes one normal film frame and splits it in half. This makes a roll of 36 frames become a roll of 72 frames.
The Rise of Half-Frame Cameras in Film Photography
Half-frame cameras became popular in the 1960’s. Their ultra compact size and their ability to keep developing and film costs low by turning one roll of film into two made them accessible and affordable for amateur photographers.
Several companies created half frame cameras, but they were more like toy cameras with zone focusing and limited exposure control. The Olympus Pen F is the only SLR half-frame system, giving it the most flexibility.
The Pen F, along with the follow up Pen FT and Pen FV, were camera systems with full exposure control, manual focus, interchangeable lenses, and additional accessories. Far different from the other half-frame cameras coming out on the market.
The Olympus Pen F was first available in 1963. The Pen FT in 1966, and the Pen FV in 1967. You can find Pen F cameras at KEH Camera or on eBay with a lens for around $200-$250.
Technical Details and Features of the Olympus Pen F
The Olympus Pen F half-frame system is an SLR, meaning it has a prism and mirrors so that what you see through the viewfinder is what the camera sees. However, it is as small as a rangefinder camera.
The camera is solidly built, compact, with a sleek, modern design.
Shutter Speed and Flash Sync
It is a completely mechanical camera and doesn’t need any batteries. The shutter speeds range from B to 1/500th of a second.
The shutter is a focal plane rotary titanium shutter, which means it can flash sync at all shutter speeds, an unusual feature for an SLR camera. This is possible because the shutter opens completely to let light in to expose the film, unlike the usual two curtain shutter of most 35mm cameras that only expose a portion of the frame as it moves across the film.
One of the great advantages to the rotary shutter and mirror system besides the ability to flash sync at all speeds is that there is very little camera shake, making it easier to hand-hold at lower shutter speeds.
The Pen F has no built-in light meter. A light meter wasn’t added until a later model on the Pen FT.
When holding the camera in the normal horizontal position, the viewfinder is in portrait orientation. To shoot in landscape orientation, you will need to hold the camera vertically.
The viewfinder on the Pen F is also very susceptible to dust. The camera uses a unique configuration of mirrors and a prism beside the shutter.
This configuration, instead of the usual pentaprism bump at the top of the camera, is what makes it so compact. But the downside to this system of coated mirrors is they are very susceptible to dust, so many of the Pen F cameras will have dust in their viewfinders.
Film Advance and Shutter Speed/Aperture Dials
The film advance on the Pen F is a double stroke film advance lever. Meaning, you’ll have to crank the film advance lever twice between each shot. The Pen FT and FV have single stroke film advance levers.
There is a frame counter on the top of the camera. The shutter speed dial is on the front of the camera, which is an unusual location, but because the numbers are marked on the side of the dial, they are easy to see when looking down at the camera.
The f/stop numbers are marked along the silver aperture ring on the lens. If you have a lens made during the time the Pen FT was in production, you will also have exposure value numbers on the aperture ring.
This is because the meter in the FT used EV numbers instead of f/stops. You can adjust the ring to make the f/stop numbers usable by pulling the ring forward and twisting it until the f/stop numbers line up with the aperture mark.
Lenses and Accessories for the Olympus Pen F
While there are many lenses available for the Pen F system, the most common one is the 38mm 1.8 lens. If you are willing to spend a little more and are lucky enough to find one, you can get the 38mm 2.8 “pancake” lens making your sleek, modern Pen F even more streamlined and compact.
The lenses designed for the Pen F systems are very sharp. It may take a little practice focusing to get used to the small viewfinder. I would recommend shooting your first roll in good light to get sharp images.
Other accessories that I find very useful are a set of closeup filters (the Pen F lenses take 43mm filters), a threaded plunger-style camera release, a small light meter, and a tripod.
One accessory on my wish list is a lens adapter or so that I can use my Nikon full frame lenses with this camera. There are several adapters available so you can use your Canon or Olympus full frame lenses with the Pen F as well.
The Olympus Pen F is a wonderfully easy camera to use. It loads like a regular mechanical 35mm camera—put the cartridge in and wind the film on to the take-up spool using the film advance lever.
Although it does not have a light meter, I’ve found that the Sunny 16 Rule works really well when out shooting with this camera. However, I do carry a hand-held light meter for tricky lighting situations.
have decided that I prefer slower films in my Olympus Pen F—anything
below ISO 200. With the size of the image being so small, the grain
of faster films is very pronounced. Perhaps I will want to play with
that at some point, but if I am looking for crisp images, slower
films with finer grain are better.
My copy has a fairly clean viewfinder. If you have a Pen FT, you’ll find the viewfinder significantly darker than the Pen F or the Pen FV, making it a little harder to see when focusing.
Because the Pen F is a double stroke film advance, it may take a little getting used to if you’ve never used one before. There were a couple of times when shooting my first roll that I forgot to crank the film twice before my next shot.
When you’ve finished your roll of film (Seventy-two frames may take you a while!), there is a film release button on the bottom of the camera. Push that before you flip out the crank on the left side of the camera to rewind your film.
To open the back, gently lift the film crank until it clicks and the camera back pops open.
When you get close to the end of your roll, be a little gentle when you double stroke advance your film. First of all, if you are like me and load your film conservatively, you may end up with 73 or more frames, which is a nice bonus. And maybe I am just a maniac when I advance my film, but I broke two of my early rolls when I reached the end of the rolls as I pulled the lever for the second time.
I think this camera lends itself to some unique creative challenges. One of the current and popular ways this camera is used is to create diptychs. A diptych is a work of art with two panels that could be individual pieces, but when shown side by side are related or tell a story.
The Pen F wasn’t necessarily designed for this usage, but it is uniquely suited to it. There is no rule that says you can only create diptychs with half frame cameras, but I have found that they have challenged me creatively.
Be sure to communicate with your lab and let them know that you want your images scanned as diptychs.
There are so many ways to use the Pen F to create diptychs. You can shoot the same scene from different angles:
You can shoot 180 degree images (shoot one image, then turn 180 degrees to shoot another):
You can shoot two related scenes:
You can shoot portrait pairs:
You can shoot the same thing from two different distances:
Similar to shooting something from two different differences, you can shoot something with and without a closeup filter:
You can also shoot triptychs, a set of three images that tell a story
This panorama was hand-held, but in future, I’d like to try them with a tripod to keep the horizon in line. Panoramas with more than two frames will require assembly in Photoshop or scanning them yourself.
other things on my list to try are diptychs with focus shift,
vertical panoramas made by shooting the camera with the viewfinder
oriented horizontally, night diptychs and panoramas, star trails,
black and white film, and more storytelling pairs.
Shooting Single Images with a Half-Frame Camera
Of course, there is no rule that says you must only shoot diptychs or panoramas with the Olympus Pen F. You can certainly shoot it just as you would any other camera with each image standing on its own.
And you can shoot images horizontally, too. Just remember that to do so, you’ll need to turn the camera vertically.
Tips for Shooting Diptychs and Triptychs
The Olympus Pen F is very straightforward and simple. However, there are some things that I wish I’d known before using it for diptychs and triptychs.
I found the film counter rather hard to read, so I have learned to keep track of my images myself.
I shoot very intentionally, and I try to plan my diptych before I shoot it. It can be frustrating to have one image and be unsure what your next image to pair with it will be, especially if you find something else you want to shoot in between.
Also, when shooting diptychs and triptychs, make sure your exposures match. This is especially challenging if the light varies from one image to the other. You may have to over- or under-expose the second image to get the two images to have similar tones. There is no special trick to this; it’s trial and error.
If you are going to make a triptych, make two sets of triptychs in a row, so it is easier to combine the images and you don’t end up with your other diptychs “off” count. Or shoot one triptych and one stand-alone image. (If you do get “off” with your diptychs, you can repair them in Photoshop.)
This is a fun camera for just about anyone—amateur and professional alike. It would be great for travel because of the high number of images you can make from a single roll of film.
Wouldn’t it be great to only have to take this sleek, compact camera and three or four rolls of film on your next trip?! It’s also good for a creative challenge to create meaningful, unique diptychs or panoramas.
I would love to hear from anyone with an Olympus Pen F or any other half frame camera about how you use it. Does it inspire you creatively?
If you’d like some half frame inspiration, check out these Instagram accounts and links: